Riley brings focused mindset to alma mater
Colin Capece | Thursday, September 5, 2019
Passionate. Purposeful. Intense.
Second year head coach Chad Riley chose these three words to describe the way he wants his 11th-ranked Irish to play this season following a 3-2 road win against St. Louis on Saturday. But these words also effectively explain how Riley has reached this point in his coaching career, why he found success his first year as Notre Dame’s leader and how he plans to deliver the second national championship in program history.
After legendary head coach Bobby Clark decided to retire following the 2017 season, Riley was hired in January 2018. However, Riley’s Notre Dame connection was established nearly two decades before. The Houston, Texas native was a midfielder for the Irish from 2000-2003 and played for Clark from 2001-2003 in his first three seasons at the helm. Riley tallied 32 assists in his career, which ranks second in program history, and also served as an assistant team captain in his senior season.
“I certainly have a lot of love and a lot of pride for this place, which makes it so enjoyable to come in and coach every day,” Riley said in a phone interview.
For Riley, it’s clear Notre Dame is a place that feels like home. When asked what attracted him to South Bend as a player, he discussed how the University and the soccer program stood out from other places.
“When I was going through the recruiting process, I felt that everyone I met here was just a little bit different,” Riley said. “Everyone was concerned not just about you as a player or as a student, but as an individual and how you would develop over your time there.”
When he was offered the head job at his alma mater, Riley claimed that his familiarity with the soccer program’s culture was one of the driving factors behind his decision to accept.
“During the interview process, I got the sense that everyone, from [athletic director] Jack Swarbrick to [University president] Fr. [John] Jenkins, was focused on doing things the right way,” Riley said. “For me, working with great people every day, working at a school where I believe in the mission and the way they treat students, and the ability to compete at the highest level of the sport, it was just the perfect combination.”
In addition to his passion for Irish soccer, Riley’s track record of success in previous coaching jobs made him an ideal fit as Clark’s successor. After working as an assistant at Oberlin College and St. John’s University in 2004 and 2005, respectively, he served as a Notre Dame assistant under his former head coach from 2006-2011. In 2012, Riley headed to Hanover, New Hampshire to be an assistant at Dartmouth College, but when the team’s head coach resigned at the end of the season, Riley was promoted. After a difficult first year at the helm in which his squad went 6-7-4, Riley turned the program around and led the team to four consecutive Ivy League titles.
Riley made an immediate impact in his first year at Notre Dame, guiding the Irish to the quarterfinals of the College Cup. When discussing his leadership style, Riley explained that success is often derived from instilling a sense of purpose.
“The environment that we try to create as a coaching staff is certainly one that’s educational,” Riley said. “We’re going to show our players the way but we can’t put the work in for them. We also know that players are sometimes going to make mistakes, but our job is to help them learn and grow from them.”
Riley also knows that for his team to continue to ascend, his entire group must buy into his team first mentality.
“I think one of the biggest things I learned in my first head coaching job is that success often depends on how tight a team is, meaning how much they want to work for one another,” Riley said. “That’s also one of the most important things I learned under Bobby [Clark]. With him, it was always about the team as a whole, and I think that was a major part of his success. It’s not just going to be five or six guys or even the starting eleven. It takes an entire team to be successful, and we need our entire squad motivated and working towards the same goal.”
Riley also knows the expectation at Notre Dame is for teams to compete for national championships, and his group will be no exception.
“As a coaching staff, we want make sure that we are aspirational,” he said. “We are not going to set the bar low. We want to win every game we play in and when we don’t we are going to evaluate and figure out how we move forward from there.”
Riley believes to reach the top of college soccer, his program will have to focus on one year at a time.
“As a coach of course I’m always recruiting and trying to plan for the future, but the most important thing for the team is to focus on one practice at a time, one game at a time, one year at a time,” he said.
When asked what his team needs to do this season to advance further in the NCAA tournament, Riley discussed the importance of his players focusing more intently on the biggest games of the season.
“The margins in a knockout tournament like the College Cup are so small, so you have to make sure your players are locked in in those do or die moments,” Riley said. “You also have to make sure that you are always knocking on the door. Every year, we want to always be competing with the best and positioning ourselves to win at the highest level.”